Politics in West Tisbury Turn Divisive as Town Struggles with Rampant Growth

By CHRIS BURRELL

If you wanted proof of how far the political landscape shifted this week in West Tisbury, all you had to do was pan over the selectmen's table in town hall.

For the first time in almost three decades, the man frozen in oil paint in the Stan Murphy portrait hanging on the wall was not sitting there underneath the picture.

John Alley, just a junior selectman when Mr. Murphy painted the picture of three selectmen posing on the steps of town hall, was ousted last week, drummed out of office after 27 years by a huge margin - 593 to 357 - and replaced by Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a police sergeant in town and chairman of both the finance committee and Up-Island Regional School Committee.

While Mr. Manter is another native son, his presence at the table quickly became another indication of the huge shift in town politics when his boss, police chief Beth Toomey, came to the board to rally help for repairing the police budget, which took a beating at the hands of voters last week.

Suddenly, there was Mr. Manter, clearly on the upper side of the table as a selectman, listening while his chief pleaded her case. Just the day before on a visit to the town library, you were likely to be greeted with these words: "Welcome to Skipperville."

Things are indeed different in West Tisbury.

But change in the political structure has been brewing. Last year, selectman Glenn Hearn narrowly upset four-term selectwoman Cynthia Mitchell, winning by 20 votes. Three years ago, it was clear that Mr. Alley's political base was teetering; he won reelection with an 18-vote margin.

Action at the polls came in the midst of enormous change in the town itself. Consider the statistics:

West Tisbury grew faster than any other Island town in the last decade. Census data showed a 44 per cent jump in population between 1990 and 2000 as the number of residents climbed to just under 2,500. This year's town report puts the total at 2,696.

Education costs spiraled, more than doubling from $2.3 million to $5.6 million between 1992 and 2002, according to a report issued in January by the state Department of Revenue.

The town funded and built a $1.8 million, 6,500-square-foot public safety building three years ago.

And more change is on the horizon. Between 1992 and 2002, circulation at the public library almost tripled from 35,758 to more than 107,000 items, prompting calls for a new library addition to a building that opened 10 years ago.

Three years ago, the post office added 323 boxes but they're all full now, and within four years postal operations are expected to take over the entire building, displacing Biga Bakery, according to bakery co-owner Doug Reid.

Judy Crawford, chairwoman of the town conservation commission, compared West Tisbury to a kid who shot up seven inches in one year. It's growing pains, she said.

"Change has been hitting the town in many, many ways. For a long time, it was a stable population and a lot of things got handled on the front porch of Alley's," she said. "But that can't happen anymore. We've gone beyond that with the growth."

No one can dispute the growth and change in West Tisbury, but the question is: how are residents responding? To be sure, they've tried their best to hold change at bay - embracing a visioning process that committed the town to preserving its rural character. Three years ago, they passed a bylaw creating a village historic district.

But the latest message from voters carries a paradox. Voters wanted new blood in town hall but refused any changes in the building itself.

"The election results seem schizophrenic," said library director Mary Jo Joiner, a close observer of town politics who challenged Mr. Alley three years ago. "At town meeting we heard some voters say, ‘Why don't we build a new one entirely.' I don't think there's a clear vision now. It seemed like there was one when we did the visioning work, but it doesn't seem like it now."

But Muriel Bye, a retired nurse, said the message from voters couldn't be more clear. To her, it's all about the wallet. "We have to stop spending all the money we've been spending. Older people can't afford to stay here," she said. "There's been too much, too fast."

Ms. Bye holds the town leaders who watched over all the change responsible. "We need somebody with new ideas," she said. "Things aren't going to change otherwise."

While some voters are critical of runaway spending, they also appear leery of political leaders who stray outside town borders. Last year, voters questioned Mrs. Mitchell's role in Steamship Authority (SSA) politics.

This year, Mr. Alley came under fire for this role as county commission chairman at a time when county government was embroiled in scandals. Then last month, Mr. Alley and Mr. Hearn passed over longtime resident Robert Mone and appointed a newcomer, Robert Schwartz, to replace Kate Warner on the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC).

Residents perceived that forces outside town influenced the decision, said Whit Manter, brother of the newly elected selectman. "People were very unhappy with the way the commission choice was handled," he said. "That drove the election."

The front-porch politicking of the past has clearly given way to a different kind of maneuvering among town officials. More than a year ago, Mr. Alley took heat from his fellow board members when he voted as a county commissioner to replace J.B. Riggs Parker as the Vineyard governor to the SSA.

Then last July, at an awkward special town meeting, voters opted for a secret ballot when they were asked to support a new way of structuring Mrs. Mitchell's job as treasurer. One voter stood up to complain of the "negative feelings" among townspeople and pressed them to "reunite the community in a less hostile manner."

By August, a professional mediator hired by selectmen reported that the town's reputation for tolerance and acceptance was "badly strained," raising the tension levels in town hall.

Both Whit Manter and town moderator Pat Gregory agreed that West Tisbury has entered a new phase, and it's not a friendly one.

"As you've got more people, as you get more crowded, people's interests overlap and bump into each other," said Whit Manter, "It kind of hurts because we're not used to it in this town. But that's part of growing up."

Mr. Gregory said he witnessed the advent of "negative campaigning" in town when he received a letter written by Richard Knabel, backing Mr. Alley and questioning the potential conflicts of interest posed by Skipper Manter and his numerous posts in town.

"That was negative with respect to Skip Manter. I was really disappointed, and it reflected a lot of people's disappointment," said the moderator. "It does seem that people have chosen more hardened positions than previously."

Mr. Knabel, one of the founders of the Island's first-ever political action committees, Citizens for the MVC, defended his letter, saying it raised a viable issue. "How do you discuss it and not leave yourself open to the charge that it's negative campaigning?" he asked.

He added that the political action committee played no role in either the selectmen's race or the commission appointment. But he made no attempt to conceal his reaction to the vote from last week. "It's a huge step backwards," he said. "People felt strongly they wanted John Alley to retire, but what they did is to create a minefield of conflict."

Mrs. Crawford predicted that the brittle politics in West Tisbury will settle down as townspeople grow accustomed to their new size.

"It used to be easier when everyone knew each other," she said. "But there's still a tremendous, deep-felt pride in this town. . . . The old idea of West Tisbury as the Athens of the Island is still very much alive, but the town is hurting, going through a transition. We did a beautiful job with visioning, but it didn't spare us the rough times."